Welcome to Chicago: The inside scoop on media’s hot spots
The following was adapted from a piece I wrote for the Time Out Chicago Student Guide:
Chicago has always been known as a great news town — where TV anchors and newspaper columnists rank with top athletes and unindicted politicians among the city’s biggest celebrities. Want to be an instant expert on Chicago’s rich media history? Here’s a guide to six spots that every true local news junkie should know:
Tribune Tower, 435 N Michigan Ave
It looks like a neo-Gothic cathedral, but it’s been home to the Chicago Tribune, the dominant daily of “Chicagoland” (a word invented by Tribune editors) ever since the newspaper championed a little-known politician named Abraham Lincoln. It also houses WGN Radio, whose call letters stand for the Trib’s old slogan: “World’s Greatest Newspaper.” A showcase studio at street level allows visitors to watch WGN’s talk show hosts talk into microphones.
Didja know… Embedded in the limestone façade of Tribune Tower are tiny artifacts lifted from landmarks and monuments around the world, including stones from the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and more than 150 other historic sites.
Harpo Studios, 1058 W Washington Blvd
The greatest stars in the world — as well as countless fans — passed through these doors each day to pay homage to Queen of Television Oprah Winfrey. After 25 years, the show ended in May 2011, but her old staff will keep the place busy taping Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show for Oprah’s OWN network.
Didja know… Known as Chicago’s Second Regiment Armory in the early 1900s, the Harpo building was used as a morgue after the Eastland steamer capsized in the Chicago River in 1915, claiming more than 800 lives. There’s talk that the place has been haunted ever since by the ghost of the “Gray Lady.”
Playboy Mansion, 1340 N State Pkwy
Before he moved out west to the Holmby Hills estate of Girls Next Door fame, a pajama-clad, Pepsi-swilling Hugh Hefner edited Playboy magazine by day and cavorted with playmates at night in this 70-room Gold Coast mansion. Throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, Hef hosted celebrity parties here that went on for days. In 1984, Playboy leased the property to the Art Institute of Chicago for $10 a year. (Corrected from original reference to 1974.) It later was converted to private condos.
Didja know… Once adorning the mansion’s front door was a brass plate with the Latin inscription: Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare (“If you don’t swing, don’t ring”).
Billy Goat Tavern, 430 N Michigan Ave
Immortalized by columnist Mike Royko (who drank here often and wrote of it lovingly), this subterranean sanctum became the most famous journalists’ hangout in town. You’ll still find a few ink-stained wretches among its denizens. More recently it has become neutral ground for politicians to come together for a beer or two, including the 2010 post-election summit of U.S. Senate foes Mark Kirk and Alexi Giannoulias.
Didja know… In tribute to an early Saturday Night Live sketch inspired by the tavern, there’s a sign on the wall that reads: “Cheezborger, Cheezborger, Cheezborger. No Pepsi. Coke.” (In the original sketch, the great John Belushi actually said: “No Coke. Pepsi.”)
Merchandise Mart, between Wells and Orleans Sts at the Chicago River
From NBC studios that originated some of America’s favorite radio shows starting in 1930, a who’s who of video pioneers in the late ’40s and ’50s invented what came to be known as The Chicago School of Television. The Mart’s broadcast heritage continues today with radio stations WLUP and WWWN located along the second-floor gallery. A bridge over Orleans Street connects to the Apparel Center, now home to the Chicago Sun-Times, the city-centric, must-read competitor to the Tribune.
Didja know… Built as a wholesale warehouse by Marshall Field & Co., this imposing 4-million square-foot edifice, known as the world’s largest privately owned office building, was owned by the Kennedy Family from 1945 to 1998.
Ambassador East Hotel, 1301 N State Pkwy
Celebrity journalism was practically invented in the hotel’s famed Pump Room. Before the jet age, stars traveling to either coast by train stopped off at Union Station and were whisked over to this swanky watering hole where gossip columnists like the legendary Irv Kupcinet got them to spill their secrets. (On September 12, the hotel is expected to be renamed Public Chicago, and the Pump Room will reopen.)
Didja know… Kupcinet, whose Kup’s Column was a fixture in the Sun-Times for 60 years, had an exact replica of the Pump Room’s Booth One installed in his Lake Shore Drive apartment.